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Patrice O’Neal documentary tells the story of a titanic talent who ran out of time

"Patrice O'Neal: Killing Is Easy," premiering on Comedy Central, aims to show the comedian in all his complexity.
"Patrice O'Neal: Killing Is Easy," premiering on Comedy Central, aims to show the comedian in all his complexity.

Comedy Central recently put up a billboard over Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles to advertise its new documentary, “Patrice O’Neal: Killing Is Easy.” The film, which debuts Friday, chronicles the raucous life and sudden death of O’Neal, the comedian and Boston native who was on the verge of an overdue breakthrough when he died 10 years ago at age 41 following a massive stroke.

When the billboard went up, O’Neal’s close friend Bill Burr, who lives in Southern California, went down to Sunset to take a picture of it. “It was a really emotional thing, because that’s where he should have been,” Burr says. While his friend was still alive, that is.

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O’Neal didn’t just want easy laughs — in the language of comedians, “killing” the audience — says Denis O’Leary in the documentary: “He wanted the truth.”

“He drove people nuts,” says Burr, “but he was so [expletive] funny.”

All Things Comedy, the production company that Burr co-founded with fellow comedian Al Madrigal in 2012, produced the documentary with Von Decarlo, O’Neal’s fiancée and herself a comedian. She says it was critical to her to capture a complete picture of the man she knew and loved.

“My entire goal was to humanize Patrice,” Decarlo says. Rather than make a film in which other people pontificate about how funny he was, she wanted her late partner to narrate his own story, through his onstage material and various interviews, with occasional input from those who knew him.

“That’s one of my favorite things about the film,” she says. “He was a very complex person. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the comedy and not see him as a man.”

Von Decarlo, an executive producer of "Patrice O'Neal: Killing Is Easy," was O'Neal's fiancée when he died in 2011. “My entire goal was to humanize Patrice,” she says of the documentary,
Von Decarlo, an executive producer of "Patrice O'Neal: Killing Is Easy," was O'Neal's fiancée when he died in 2011. “My entire goal was to humanize Patrice,” she says of the documentary,Comedy Central

O’Neal’s humor was frankly often crass, whether he was discussing race relations or the gender wars, his two favorite — and practically all-consuming — subjects. Explaining how he first felt about Decarlo’s daughter from a previous relationship, he joked that he wanted nothing to do with the product of another man who’d slept with his girlfriend.

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“I like my house unfurnished,” he’d say.

O’Neal made a habit of pushing the boundaries of propriety, as Colin Quinn says in the film. Quinn made plenty of room for the 6-foot-6-inch, 300-pound O’Neal on the set of his short-lived but brilliant Comedy Central series “Tough Crowd” (2002-2004), in which a panel of comedians jousted over various issues and current events.

“All the time, he took it too far,” Quinn tells the camera, grinning.

Decarlo knows that O’Neal’s material was not for the easily offended. “But if you just look at his material on the surface,” she says, “you miss the depth of the love and pain where it came from.”

From early on in his career, O’Neal was more a truth-sayer and taboo philosopher than a run-of-the-mill joke peddler. The documentary, directed by Michael Bonfiglio (who also directed Gary Gulman’s “The Great Depresh”), makes clear that O’Neal’s refusal to play the Hollywood games may have kept his career from the heights his talent deserved.

“We all shoot ourselves in the foot sometimes,” says Burr. “Some of us never stop doing it, and others work on themselves. And that’s what he was doing [at the time of his death].”

As much as “Elephant in the Room” — O’Neal’s lone hour-long comedy special, which debuted in early 2011 — demonstrated his potential, Burr says, “he still had so much more in the tank.”

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O’Neal’s mother, Georgia, named him Patrice Lumumba Malcolm O’Neal, after the African nationalist Patrice Lumumba and the slain civil rights activist Malcolm X. Known as “Bruiser” to friends in his younger years, he was a football star at West Roxbury High School, where his senior-year team won a state championship.

When O’Neal began performing in the Boston clubs in the early 1990s, he struck up a friendship with Burr. O’Neal had grown up confronted with racism; the infamous Charles Stuart case of 1989, in which a husband murdered his pregnant wife, then tried to blame it on a non-existent Black assailant, weighed heavily on him.

As brash as he could be, O’Neal struggled with the idea that he would never be accepted for simply being himself, Burr says.

“That guy went through a lot of stuff. Being as smart as he was, he had to deal with a lot of people who weren’t one-tenth of who he was as a person, but had the right skin color and the right office.”

Bill Burr and Patrice O'Neal in an undated photo. The two met up in the early 1990s at Boston comedy clubs and briefly performed together as a two-man act in New York.
Bill Burr and Patrice O'Neal in an undated photo. The two met up in the early 1990s at Boston comedy clubs and briefly performed together as a two-man act in New York.Comedy Central

O’Neal eventually landed some prestigious gigs, appearing, for instance, on “The Office” and “Arrested Development.” But his apparent inability to play nice, as his colleagues attest in the film, sometimes cost him.

He could be brutally honest in his relationship with Decarlo, too, she says. “Sometimes it was hurtful, but it would make you think, make you really look at yourself,” she says. This was the same man, she notes, who became a doting father to her daughter, a man who “literally tucked me in every night.”

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“We both had to grow. Obviously I’m a woman, so I got there before him,” she adds with a laugh.

For a time when they were still in their 20s, Burr and O’Neal took their private, unfiltered conversations onstage in a two-man act, performing at “alternative” comedy rooms in New York City. But they quickly realized that they’d be pigeonholed as a comedy team, so they dropped it.

Their rapport, Burr says, was “pure. He was one of the great friends that I’ve had in life.”

He still takes O’Neal’s mother to lunch when he’s performing near her home in Virginia. “She’s funny like Patrice,” he says. “I’ll see Patrice in her, in a mannerism or a laugh, or a look.”

O’Neal once told Decarlo that he wanted to see his face on a billboard in Times Square.

“He worked hard to be a comic,” she says. “Not a fat comic, not a Black comic — just a great comic.”

“He was about to be one of the greats,” as Medford native and comic Robert Kelly, another close friend, says in the documentary. “Not that he isn’t, but he was about to be . . . forever.”

It won’t be up forever, but for now, like the billboard in LA, O’Neal’s image is looming over Times Square, just as he wished.

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PATRICE O’NEAL: KILLING IS EASY

On Comedy Central, Feb. 19 at 10 p.m.

Email James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.